Embracing the Radical Economics of the Bible

By Borg, Marcus | Tikkun, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Embracing the Radical Economics of the Bible


Borg, Marcus, Tikkun


What may be the most radical economic laws in all of human history are found in the first five books of the Bible, variously known as the Torah, the Pentateuch, "the law," and the books of Moses.

Central to God's covenant with ancient Israel (the spiritual ancestors of Jews, Christians, and Muslims), these laws describe and prescribe what the new life beyond "Egypt" - at that time seen as a symbol of bondage, economic exploitation, impoverishment, and slavery - is to be like. They embody God's dream, God's passion for a different kind of life on earth, here and now, in this world. They include laws about debt and land.

In the world of biblical Israel, debt and land were both related to food and the material basis of existence. Most people were farmers, so access to land meant access to the source of food. In that era, a person would go into debt only for the most desperate reasons. Borrowing in order to purchase consumer goods over time was unknown. Only if one didn't have enough food, perhaps because one's family had to eat next year's seed grain in order to survive, would one borrow.

In that cultural context, the laws about debt and land come alive. We can see their purpose and meaning in their ancient historical context. These radical economic laws call for:

* No interest on loans to members of the covenant (fellow-Israelites). People who have enough, or more than enough, are not allowed to profit from the desperation and misfortune of others (see Exod. 22:25, Lev. 23:35-36, and Deut. 23:9).

* The observance of a Sabbath Year. Every seventh year, all debts are to be forgiven and people who have become indentured slaves because of debt are to be released (see Deut. 15:1-18, Deut. 31:10, and Exod. 21:2).

* The observance of a Jubilee Year. Every fiftieth year, all agricultural land is to be returned to the original family of ownership without payment. Behind this law is the tradition that every Israelite family received a piece of agricultural land when the Israelites arrived in the promised land. The law recognizes that over time a family might lose its land.

In ancient Israel, agricultural land could not be bought or sold; but it could be lost through foreclosure because of indebtedness. Thus the law mandates its restoration every half century (see Lev. 25:10-28).

It's interesting that the Jews and Christians who think biblical laws are God's revealed will and are thus eternally valid have not taken up the fight to put these laws into practice. Many believers are eager to use the Bible against same-sex relationships (and rely on highly questionable interpretations to do so) but devote no energy to fighting for the implementation of these crystal clear edicts on debt. …

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